Read A Coffin Full Of Dollars Online

Authors: Joe Millard

Tags: #Western

A Coffin Full Of Dollars (3 page)

Shadrach!

Throughout much of the Southwest the name had grown to the dimensions of a sinister legend, a synonym for pure evil.

Shadrach the bounty killer, whose gun was as swift and sure in pursuit of a fifty-dollar reward as for one of five hundred or five thousand.

Shadrach the executioner, whose deadly skill was for sale to the highest bidder, and ever ready to switch allegiance at the hint of a better offer.

Shadrach the conscienceless, whose only god was gold and whose only motive was greed.

Men talked of him around the night fires, recounting and probably magnifying his exploits. They spoke with awe of his custom-made guns, the rifles and shotguns in the saddle roll that would unfurl at a twitch of the tie-string, the pistol with its fourteen-inch barrel and detachable shoulder stock that gave it almost the range and accuracy of a rifle. Voices dropped when they talked of his lightning-swift cross-belly draw that no gun-hawk had ever challenged and survived.

The bounty hunter had heard most of the stories about the fearsome Shadrach and had discounted the majority, knowing how legends tend to fatten upon themselves with each retelling. He was neither greatly impressed nor seriously concerned, since their areas of operation were widely separated and there seemed little likelihood that their trails would ever cross. After all, rival bounty hunters were becoming a dime a dozen as outlawry flourished with the boom in mining, the spread of banks and the expansion of stage and freight lines.

Then suddenly the mythical Shadrach was no longer remote and impersonal, but a very present and very deadly menace. He remembered all too clearly how it had begun....

CHAPTER 4

For more than a month The Man With No Name had patiently tracked the outlaw, Scarse, whose bloody misdeeds had earned him the dubious honor of a five-thousand-dollar bounty. Now, at last, the trail was coming to an end, the Big Payday only a matter of hours away.

From the spine of a high razor-back ridge he looked down and saw his quarry, clear and unmistakable through the lenses of his spy glass. The outlaw's hideout camp that had eluded searchers for more than a year was superbly chosen for its purpose. It lay at the foot of the ridge, a broad, shallow cave under a rock overhang that shielded it from direct view from above. Great heaps of jagged rock, shaken down from the ridge in some ancient cataclysm, masked it from sight at ground level.

The outlaw was hunkered on his heels by a cookfire, watching a frying pan of meat and a battered coffee pot. A steady mountain wind, whipping along the ridge, dispersed any betraying smoke or smell. Nevertheless, Scarse was taking no chances. His rifle leaned against a rock close to his left hand. His cocked pistol lay on another rock, inches from his right hand.

The bounty hunter nodded with satisfaction, undisturbed by the availability of the weapons. What
did
disturb him was the fact that for at least two weeks, while he trailed the outlaw, someone was also trailing him.

The sense of being spied upon day and night was overpowering and infuriating. Only twice in that time had he caught fleeting glimpses of his shadow but both times the distance was too great for recognition. On several occasions he had back-trailed a mile or more without success. Although he had failed to sight the tracker, he found plenty of fresh signs, clear hoof-prints, horse-droppings still steaming, underbrush recently broken.

Back-trailing early one morning, the hunter came upon his shadow's night camp. The ground was trampled with fresh hoof-prints and boot tracks. The ashes of the morning cookfire were still warm. The hunter had a strong feeling that the mysterious trailer was somewhere close by, watching him and jeering at his frustration.

Since there had been no signs of hostile intent, the hunter finally forced himself to ignore the baffling pursuit for the time being. His primary objective was to garner Mr. Scarse and the five-thousand-dollar bounty, anyhow, and he disliked being diverted from so worthy a purpose. Once it was accomplished, he could concentrate on the identity and purpose of the mysterious tracker.

Nevertheless he delayed long enough to search the opposite side of the ridge with his glass. He saw no sign of life or movement except his own horse, grazing placidly where he had left it ground-haltered. Yet the feeling of being watched was strong. He swore under his breath and worked his way down to his horse. All that remained to be done now was to swing around through the pass, take the outlaw by surprise and ride into town to collect the bounty.

He started to swing in to the saddle and froze. Tucked under the cinch strap was a folded paper. He pulled it out and unfolded it
.
The paper was completely blank but its presence conveyed the message clearly. The mysterious and elusive shadow had been there and was mocking him.

The hunter mounted and headed for the pass, spurred by a sudden sense of urgency. As he entered the deep, shadowed slot his ears caught the faint sound of a single distant gunshot. He swore thickly and raked his spurs.

At the site of the outlaw's hideout, he sprang down and scrambled over the rocks, gun in hand, ignoring stealth. A sharp premonition warned him of what he would find on the other side.

Nothing!

The meat was burning on the fire, the coffee pot boiling over. The rifle and pistol were gone. Where Scarse had squatted, there was a puddle of blood not yet congealed. Neither the outlaw, nor his body, was anywhere in sight.

Back in town the sheriff confirmed his defeat with relish.
"Feller toted in Scarse's
re
-mains and collected the bounty
not two hours ago. Said his name was Shadrach. He left an
envelope for you. He didn't know your name but he said
you'd be in right behind him and he described your togs to a T."

The envelope contained a ten-dollar bank note and a brief, taunting message. "Please accept this for your trouble in locating the late Mr. Scarse for me. If you will track down some more good kills you will find me equally generous in sharing the rewards." It was signed simply, "
Shadrach
."

In the ensuing weeks two more rich prizes were snatched from his grasp by the same phantom figure. Each time there was the same jeering note, the same infuriating ten-dollar bill. It was obvious that the legendary Shadrach had moved in with a vengeance. It was equally obvious that he was deliberately goading The Man With No Name into a showdown gunfight that he confidently expected would leave him the undisputed master of the outlaw bounty field.

Yet, by some irony of fate their paths had never again quite crossed, although each had come to know his rival intimately by description. The last time he was thwarted, the hunter had raged to a deputy,

"If you encounter that goddam Shadrach character again, give him a message for me. Tell him when we do meet, I'll kill him on sight."

The deputy had tilted back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, a half-smile on his lips.

"It's sure as hell a small world, ain't it? Would you believe it—that fella Shadrach left the identical same message for you?"

Now, at long last, here the rivals were, not a dozen yards apart, each with his hand on his gun and slaughter in the forefront of his mind. And between and around them were hundreds of men, women and racing, screeching children.

CHAPTER 5

Dandy climaxed an exhibition of expert juggling by keeping five plates spinning in the air at once. He had deftly recaptured four of them when his attention was distracted and the fifth crashed to bits on the stage floor. Dandy ignored it, staring upward, and virtually everyone in the audience looked up to see what he was staring at.

Five horsemen had suddenly appeared on the crest of the low ridge. They reined in and sat stirrup-to-stirrup, looking down at the scene on the flat. Sunlight glinted on a whiskey bottle being passed from hand to hand. For some curious, occult reason the appearance of the five seemed vaguely disturbing to most of the crowd.

Suddenly one of the riders loosed a wild Rebel yell and drove in his spurs. His horse bolted downslope, straight at the crowd, with the others pounding behind, whooping drunkenly and using their hats as whips. In the crowd there was a moment of shocked paralysis, then pandemonium as cursing men and screaming women fell over one another in a frenzied scramble to open a path for the racers.

The sheriff bolted from his chair, waving his arms and bawling, "
Stop!
Stop, yuh god-dang drunken lunatics! Halt in the name o' the law!"

When the five bore down with no slackening of pace, he made a frantic leap out of their path, fell over the chair and landed heavily, swearing in breathless gasps.

At the last possible moment the racing horses were yanked into a sharp turn, pelting the crowd with flying pebbles, dirt and gouts of lather. At the edge of the woods they were brutally hauled back on their haunches. The five tied up, then paused to circulate the bottle again before heading toward the crowd on feet that were none too steady.

The bounty hunter had not moved from his place. Now he studied the weaving quintet with narrow-eyed interest. They were typical gun-toughs, swaggering hardcase bullies, more than half drunk and clearly on the prod for trouble.

In the lead was a squat, swarthy man wearing a black eyepatch. The neck of a whiskey bottle protruded from the front of his shirt. The hunter's eyes glittered as his cash register memory flashed the image of a wanted outlaw known as One-Eye Previs, value dead or alive: one thousand dollars. At his elbow was a scrawny man with a fringe of dirty white whiskers, listed as one Panhandle Egger, bounty: five hundred dollars.

The other three rang no bell, although they were probably wanted somewhere in the territory. But even without them, the hunch about the lure of the circus would pay off nicely. But this was neither the time nor the place to make his play. He glanced over at Shadrach and saw from his rival's avaricious expression that he, too, recognized the profit potential. The two of them were on a collision course toward the same quarry with an ultimate showdown inevitable.

The sheriff came charging up, his face dark with anger. "Now you look here, you men. We don't tolerate that kind of recklessness here in Los Ydros County. Don't you realize somebody might have gotten hurt?"

"Somebody," One-Eye interrupted coldly, "is
goin
' to get hurt if you don't shut your big mouth, gramps. We're here to see the circus. If it turns out it ain't exciting enough to suit us, we can always liven things up by hangin' a loudmouth sheriff." He whirled on Dandy, who was edging up with the obvious intention of trying to sell tickets. "If you're boss of this shebang, get the hell up there and get all the action goin'. We ain't got all week."

Dandy was a man with a weakness. He had an intense dislike for bloodshed when the blood threatened to be
h
is own. He muttered, "Yes,
sir
," and bolted for the stage.

"You look here, fella," the sheriff blustered, "I've about had a bellyful of your tough talk. I'm the law here..."

"Not now you ain't," One-Eye interrupted. He slapped his holstered gun. "When we're around, Mr. Samuel Colt, here, is the law and the only law, gramps. In case you might forget it, you unbuckle that gunbelt nice and easy and hand it over. If you're a good boy, you'll get it back when we leave."

The sheriff was a brave man but he was not fanatic about it. Also, he was painfully aware that if gunfire erupted in that close-packed crowd, innocent people would be killed or hurt. He looked at the five brute faces and the five clawed hands hovering close to gun butts and did what any sensible man should under the circumstances. He carefully unbuckled the belt and handed it to One-Eye.

The outlaw grinned at his companions. "Did yuh ever see a purtier sight than a lawman suddenly gettin' religion?"

His hand shot out, hooked into the waistband of the sheriff's pants and yanked. Cloth ripped and buttons flew. Only a frantic grab by the wearer kept the trousers from ending up at the sheriff's ankles.

One-Eye chuckled. "Now yuh got somethin' to do with your hands, gramps, to keep 'em out of mischief while we're watchin' the performance."

The five sprawled on the ground in front of the crowd. One-Eye took a deep pull at the whiskey bottle, then passed it on to his companions. From time to time his single red-veined eye glared balefully around the audience, while his hand was never far from the butt of his gun.

In front of the stage, Bobo the clown was belying the mock clumsiness with some truly exceptional bareback riding on the white horse, Milky. The act finished, the clown vanished into the dressing tent and Laura emerged to a chorus of whistles and wolf howls from the quintet.

As their comments on the body-hugging tights grew louder and more obscene, the bounty hunter began to edge closer to the gun-hawks, sensing an explosion of violence and setting himself to take advantage of it when it came. From a corner of his eye he glimpsed Shadrach also edging forward. The question was, if the hunter faced a shoot-out with the quintet, would his rival take advantage of the moment to plug him in the back?

Laura had the crowd spellbound with her dazzling exhibition of skill on the trapeze. As a climax she pretended to slip off the swinging bar. A collective gasp went up as she plummeted down, to be brought up short by a thin, almost invisible, wire attached to a wide strap on her wrist. She slipped out of the strap and dropped to the ground to take her bows while the crowd thundered its applause.

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